It wasn’t until I was safely away with most of my belongings and both of my pets that I could appreciate the sweet gum, the sweet old ladies, and all the other sweetness of Virginia. Except sweet tea of course. I still take it as a personal offense when the tea I’m expecting turns out to be syrup.
Just before leaving the state, I met the May Queens. As part of a project to restore some films from the late 1920’s, I was interviewing people who remembered the events of the time, including some of the local beauties, who, crowned with blossoms, had led the annual processions on the first of May. During the first interview, I learned to appreciate the charm and grace of a lovely Southern woman. There was something very Downton Abbey about the floral decor of the room and the tray of assorted cookies offered with lemonade. Two days later, being received in her home early in the morning to review the article before the weekly paper’s deadline, I was even more impressed. You have to admire a woman who has no reason to leave the house, but has styled her hair and put on makeup before 7 in the morning.
Having learned more about the hardships of rural life in the Depression, I began to glimpse the beauty in a culture of niceties that I had dismissed as frivolous. True, some Church Ladies were critical and exacting, (in the nicest way of course) but the things that were important to them were hard-earned. Some of them had “come up” in homes with electricity provided by batteries in the basement. They had ridden to school in a milk truck. They had taken in boarders. They saw their fathers leave on fishing boats for months at a time. In the summer, they helped their mothers take care of the livestock and work in the gardens that fed them and their families. They sewed their own clothes on a treadle sewing machine. When I think of what it took just to keep clothes clean back then, it’s no wonder the May Queens care about appearances. I shouldn’t have been so surprised that a woman in her 90s would be willing to stand for an hour at a reception in uncomfortable shoes and risk breaking an ankle rather than using a cane.
And here I was, complaining of the minor inconvenience of sweet tea.
Read more about the May Queens.
Life and Leisure in the Great Depression.